The Photobook Made Public
Ramón Reverté in Conversation with Horacio Fernández
Illustration by Simone Rein.
Horacio Fernández can claim to have been one of the first key creators of both the visual vocabulary of books about books, and of an approach to a historiography of the field. Besides his seminal exhibition and book Fotografía pública/Photography in Print 1919–1939 (1999), he is also the author of two highly regarded volumes devoted to photobooks in both Latin America and Spain, as well as a prolific curator. I had the chance to speak to Fernández about how exhibiting photography in the widest sense has changed since his first exhibition, and how he foresees its future. Fernández has been a professor of the history of photography for several decades, which is evident in his candid, educated answers.—Ramón Reverté
Ramón Reverté: Fifteen years ago you curated the exhibition Fotografía pública/Photography in Print 1919–1939 at the Reina Sofía in Madrid. You have been something of a pioneer in the exhibition of photobooks. How has the exhibition of visual books changed since then?
Horacio Fernández: Fotografía pública was a challenge, owing, among other things, to a lack of precedent. The idea was to show photographic images printed in the form of books, magazines, and posters, mostly in glass cases, with covers or double pages on display. The exhibition also had a soundtrack, a collage of excerpts from speeches, music, and literary works put together by Pedro G. Romero. But there was a problem: the books and magazines themselves were not sufficiently visible. The worst thing was that you couldn’t examine the books, appreciate them as wholes, and this remains the principal problem in exhibitions of photobooks.
RR: There has really been a big change since then.
HF: In many exhibitions the photographs are framed like paintings and presented one after another in endless lines. It’s a boring model that only functions in a hallway,which is where photos have generally been hung until just recently. In the rooms of a museum, it is the walls that give the orders. Walls make it possible to separate the images, play with different heights and margins, and manipulate the lighting and the attention of the viewer. But photobooks are not photographs, so in an exhibition of photobooks it is not only space that counts. You also have to think in temporal terms. Reading a book means turning the pages; it’s an activity that involves the passage of time. When only a cover or double-page layout is on display, the experience is static, but what you need to aim for is a dynamic situation. In order to offer an experience with a temporal aspect, you have to deconstruct the photobook, showing it in sequence. For this, various formats are possible, such as using several unbound copies of the book to display consecutive pages, projecting the pages on a video screen, or reproducing them on paper. All of these techniques were used in the exhibitions The Latin American Photobook and Photobooks: Spain 1905–1977.
RR: In the end it is the sequence that defines a photobook.
HF: The sequence of images has to be the main content of the exhibition. If you show just a few photos or pages, you are being unfair to the book and modifying the intentions of the authors: the photographer, the designer, the editor. In the same way, it’s not fair to put a sculpture up against the wall: you need to be able to walk around it to appreciate it.
RR: You work with a lot of resources: books, magazines, photographs, reproductions, audiovisual aids. You also surprise the spectator, by “hanging” books, for example, and putting photos in glass cases. What are you trying to do when you exhibit books and photography?
HF: Museums are public spaces with valuable objects on display, always protected from visitors by panes of glass, guards, and alarms. The reading of a photobook, on the other hand, is a private , close-range activity, difficult to adapt to museum conventions, which tend to transform objects of everyday use into artworks that cannot be used or even touched. In the setup of Photobooks: Spain 1905–1977, a dialectic is established between the wall of the museum and the reading table. At the beginning of the exhibition the photobooks are laid out on glassed-in tables, as if they were documents complementing the photographs and projections on the wall. It seems the main focus of the exhibit is on the walls, but as the visitor continues, there are more and more tables to suggest a private reading experience, while some of the books are hung on the walls, as works of art usually are. Both María Fraile, the architect of this showing, and Jasmin Oezcebi, who did the setup of The Latin American Photobook, have worked to achieve the greatest possible transparency and proximity—not only visual, but tactile: our aim was for the books almost to be touched.
RR: When one is looking at an empty space, it can be difficult to imagine how an exhibition is going to look. Could you explain the procedure of starting from zero and setting up an exhibition in a given space?
HF: The process involved in an exhibition, like that of a book, is a collective task. The curator has to make some decisions, but even the list of works to be displayed has to be agreed on by the museum. In the case of a traveling exhibition, there has to be a flexible model: since each space determines the setup, the exhibition has to be modified again and again. Often the number of books on display needs to be reduced to function in the space. A very crowded exhibition becomes a sort of puzzle, where you can’t see the forest for the trees. In my opinion it is necessary to simplify, to give the viewer a chance to undertake as individual a reading of the works as possible.
RR: Another important question: how do you decide on the texts to be posted in the rooms? What do think of the relation of the object to the spectator?
HF: Some curators seem to think that all the visitors have PhDs in contemporary art and they end up excluding the greater part of the public. I believe the museum is a place for aesthetic experimentation, but also for learning. It is necessary therefore to use accessible language, with firsthand information, such as quotations from the artists themselves taken from their writing or interviews. It is also necessary to put the works in context and evaluate them—that is, to add a bit of art criticism to the information. The textual material should be discussed in detail with the whole team, for it tends to be assailed by some bitter enemies, above all didactic overkill and academic jargon. But oversimplifications are as common as pedantry.
RR: How do you imagine exhibitions of photobooks in the future?
HF: I would like to organize an exhibition devoted to a single photobook which would be at once a presentation and a study. I imagine a showing in which, on the one hand, you could see the entire photobook through a projection, and on the other, reproductions of the images in different sizes, documents related to the creation of the book, dummies and design proofs, monitors showing documentaries or interviews with the author and with critics, as well as other photobooks from before and after . . .
There are now books about books that approach this kind of history, but there has only been one exhibition of this kind, centered on Robert Frank’s The Americans. This will probably be one of the changes: instead of the usual retrospective exhibitions (with the customary whims of authors and curators, such as the curse of unpublished material and new discoveries), there will be coherent exhibitions of equally coherent sets of visual work—which is to say, of photobooks.
Horacio Fernández is a curator of photography and photobook exhibitions, including Fotografía pública/Photography in Print 1919–1939 (1999–2000), The Latin American Photobook (2012–14), Manuel Àlvarez Bravo: A Cultural Biography (2012), and Photobooks: Spain 1905–1977 (2014)—the catalogue for which was short-listed for a 2014 PhotoBook Award.
Simone Rein is a Los Angeles-based illustrator and has a BFA in illustration from the School of Visual Arts. simonerein.com
The PhotoBook Review is a publication dedicated to the consideration of the photobook—focusing on the best photography books being published, from the coffee-table book to the handmade artist’s edition, and on creating a better understanding of the ecosystem of the photobook as a whole.